Final Four Forecast: This May Be Rick Pitino’s Finest Coaching Job

ESPN Analysts React to Final Four Teams; Make Predictions – With four teams set for the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament semifinals in New Orleans, a cadre of ESPN analysts – Stephen Bardo, Jay Bilas, Hubert Davis, Sean Farnham and Fran Fraschilla – has weighed in on both highly anticipated matchups and which team will walk away with the trophy. ESPN will begin its coverage live on site in New Orleans’ Jackson Square on Thursday, March 29. A full schedule of shows will be announced later this week.

On Kentucky:
Bardo: Kentucky continues to raise its level of play despite its lack of experience. Their commitment to defense virtually ensures a national title.
Bilas: The Cats are young, über-talented, and unselfish. This is the nation’s best and most powerful team, and has dominated the tournament.
Davis: Kentucky is the best team in the country, playing their best on both ends of the floor at the right time.
Farnham: What stood out after the game was just how little this team celebrated a trip to New Orleans which only points to the larger goal and the business-like approach Coach Cal has led by this season.
Fraschilla: The beauty of having “six starters” is that John Calipari can beat any team in the country without two or three of them playing at their best. He has managed great talent expertly this season.

On Louisville:
Bardo: This may be Rick Pitino’s finest coaching job. His team has been injury plagued all season yet he has them peaking at the right time.
Bilas: Rick Pitino’s team can press and play a tough matchup zone that gets steals and deflections. Peyton Siva is a lightning quick point guard that can change the game with his speed.
Davis: Peyton Siva is one of the best point guards in the country with his ability to defend, penetrate, distribute and now, the 12/15-foot jump shot.
Farnham: Rick Pitino’s team can win this game in the 60s, but if it gets into the high 70s, I feel it plays into Kentucky’s favor. Peyton Siva has to shoot the ball at a better clip than he has as of late; in the last three games, he’s shot just 32% from the field.
Fraschilla: This Cardinals team success is all about defending. Whether it’s man-to-man, matchup zone or full-court pressure, Rick Pitino has pushed all the right buttons in NCAA play this season.

On Ohio State:
Bardo: After a late bump in the road, the Buckeyes are playing through Sullinger more and having success. Deshaun Thomas has been the best player in the tournament thus far.
Bilas: The Buckeyes are outstanding defensively, and have the best low post scorer in Jared Sullinger, on-ball defender in Aaron Craft, and the tourney’s top scorer in Deshaun Thomas. Ohio State is talented and tough.
Davis: Jared Sullinger is starting to dominate the low block, and with the consistent pay of Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes have an excellent chance of winning a national championship.
Farnham: Sullinger’s impact was clear on Saturday when he was limited by foul trouble in the first half against Syracuse. Defensively, the Buckeyes’ focus – as it is for so many opponents of Kansas – should be to limit points in transition and secondary break offense.
Fraschilla: Deshaun Thomas will be an X factor in the Kansas game. He has NBA scoring ability from both inside and out. Who guards him will be Bill Self’s biggest dilemma.

On Kansas:
Bardo: The Jayhawks have been the most consistent team not named Kentucky. Their versatility on offense makes them hard to game plan against.
Bilas: The Jayhawks can really guard you, and do a great job getting the ball inside for high percentage shots for Thomas Robinson. Tyshawn Taylor is having a great year, and needs to be great again for KU to win.
Davis: Kansas has one of the best players in the country in Thomas Robinson who has dominated the power forward position in college basketball all year.
Farnham: The key for success for the Jayhawks in New Orleans rests on the shoulders of Tyshawn Taylor. He can win you games, and throughout most of the Big 12, he did. But he has also been that guard that has mental lapses taking bad shots or gets careless with his passes giving life and easy looks to opponents.
Fraschilla: This time, patience is a virtue at Kansas. While this Jayhawk team is certainly talented, four of Bill Self’s five starters began their careers on the bench. They have all improved dramatically.

What was the biggest surprise of the tournament?
Bardo: The lack of buzzer beaters is what surprised me most about this year’s tourney.
Bilas: The upsets of Duke and Missouri by 15-seeds. In the history of the tournament, only four 15-seeds had won a game. But, a 15-seed has still never won another game after its first round upset.
Farnham: I thought coming into the tournament that we would have a Final Four of “power” conference teams and we do. The best of this tournament may still be ahead in New Orleans.
Fraschilla: Duke and Missouri being bounced so quickly. It made for great theater in the first weekend.

What theme or moment stands out most from the tournament thus far?
Bardo: Marquette and Murray State put on a classic in their second-round matchup.
Bilas: The injuries and better teams not being at full strength. UNC, Syracuse and Michigan State all played without key starters. The outcomes may not have changed, and injuries are part of the game, but it left you wanting and wondering what might have been.
Fraschilla: Watching North Carolina’s seldom used Stilman White looking like Jeremy Lin for much of the Regional Finals weekend.